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Chargers should have the NFL’s best defense in 2019

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Robert Gauthier - Los Angeles Times

With the sheer size of NFL rosters, there are guaranteed to be weaknesses somewhere, and the Chargers are no exception this year, (looking at you, offensive line) but hiding your weakness is very different depending which side of the ball you’re looking at.

Offensively, you can’t always hide a quarterback’s deficiencies, but there are measures that can be taken to avoid them rearing their head more often than they need to. Playbooks that employ higher percentage throws, shorter drops, route concepts that require less anticipation, read-option to freeze the defense etc. Arm strength, athleticism, football IQ, whatever the short coming is, it can be mitigated to a certain degree.

The offensive line can be assisted with double team combinations between a guard and center, protections slide to one side of the formation and the tackles can get assistance inside and out from their tight end or running back staying in to protect.

Although receivers and tight ends can’t avoid being covered by the best in the business on every snap, the best offensive coaches know how to call for route combinations that get them favourable match ups. 22 personnel (2 running backs, 2 tight ends) or 10 personnel (1 running back, 0 tight ends) can help hide your depth at either position group.

That last point prompts the thesis of this article. Your offense is as dangerous as your best players, your defense is as dangerous as your weakest.

There are ways to help out your defenders. It’s just that helping out your weakest starters on offense can often be executed with a tweak to original play calls. Protecting defenders often calls for an entire switch of philosophy, something most coordinator’s keep throughout their career, let alone adjust entirely during a game.

You can become a blitz oriented defense if the coach sees the front 4 aren’t getting home, or as Brett Kollmann highlights in his anaylsis of Derwin James, Gus Bradley adjusted from his famed Cover-3 defense and frequently ran a Cover-6 to limit Jahleel Addae’s responsibilities, masking his lack of instincts and range in coverage by asking him to read less of the field than the average free safety. Beyond entire scheme adjustments, if a defensive linemen is getting manhandled in the run game, or the linebackers can’t keep up with a team’s running backs in coverage, its coming, again and again and again, until the defense has to overcompensate and leave another area of the field just as vulnerable.

Last year, aside from Jahleel Addae, the Chargers weaknesses on defense were limited to defensive tackle, and linebacker. They had some depth to rotate at the 3-tech position, but the lack of a true talent that could be trusted to get any push on the interior while Mebane held his ground against the double team, or get pressure in 1-on-1 situations while protection is being slid towards Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram wore on this defense. The roster never lacked talent at linebacker, it was the active roster being without it’s top three options that was the demise of that group by the end of the year. All three of those starters have returned to the team fully healthy prior to training camp. In addition to that, the depletion of the LB corps required safety Adrian Phillips to play a new role, where saying that he excelled feels like an understatement. He flew all over the field, fantastic in underneath coverage guy and as a quarterback spy, as well as holding up unnaturally well in the run game for a 210-pound safety-turned-nickel linebacker. The team also signed veteran Thomas Davis from Carolina this off-season, whose strengths in the run game could not compliment this group any better. What was a glaring weakness at linebacker 5 months ago, is now a position flooded with depth and too many high-level starters to field at once.

This leaves 2 potential positions of weakness on the defense at defensive tackle and free safety, both of which were addressed with the Chargers first two picks in the 2019 draft with players that were widely considered great value at 28th and 60th overall.

1st-round pick defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was graded by Pro Football Focus as tying for the best pass rushing grade in the nation amongst interior defensive linemen, two of which were top 10 picks this year- all while playing the majority of his season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Whether he can become a force in the run game at the next level remains to be seen, but in a passing league, the bulk of what he’ll be asked to do looks promising to say the least.

2nd-round pick Nasir Adderley may have occasional issues with over-pursuing, and it seems he had a habit of letting receivers get behind him just to bate quarterbacks to throw his way to help him get 5 interceptions last season. One thing that isn’t up for discussion is this kid’s range in coverage. His instincts look light-years ahead of Addae’s and he ran a faster 40-yard dash even while injuring his hamstring half way through. Addae forced defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to change his whole philosophy due to a total inability to play deep, and incomes the best college safety in the country at that exact trait. This group is now equipped with every weapon it could ask for and it just added the final piece needed for players to play to their strengths in the scheme most of them are more familiar with.

Not only have these holes been answered, and the roster contains players with multiple strengths that compliment the player next to them at all 3 levels of the defense, this group isn’t the least bit short on star power. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Hayward, Desmond King and Derwin James account for 5 starters on this side of the ball that have been voted to Pro Bowls the last two seasons. The final two members of that list lead the future of the secondary, both earning All-Pro honours at just 24 and 22 years old respectively. If Kyzir White stays healthy this season, it would not be shocking to think he could add to the list of Pro Bowlers. If Bosa has the same fortune health wise, we’re quite possibly looking at 3 All-Pro defenders on the same team that haven’t hit their 25th birthday.

The rest of the NFL better hope that this Chargers team’s top 2 rookies don’t reach their potential in year 1, because beyond that and the dreaded six letter “I” word, this defense won’t be vulnerable from a single angle.